February 5, 2013

Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Terry Stoops discussing the John Locke Foundation’s guide to school choice.

RALEIGH — Now that North Carolina has lifted its public charter school cap and approved new tax credits for parents of children with special education needs, state leaders still have other options for improving parental choice in education. The John Locke Foundation explores those options in its new book.

First in Freedom: Transforming Ideas Into Consequences for North Carolina devotes a full chapter to setting out a “nuts-and-bolts” guide to school choice issues. The book arrives as a new Republican governor and General Assembly dive into education reform issues.

“Proponents of school choice envision an education system that ensures that all families have the means to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children, regardless of the provider,” said chapter author Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Research and Education Studies. “The way that those funds are collected and delivered may vary, but the principle remains the same. Families, not bureaucrats, should be in charge.”

Expanding school choice options would help North Carolina address a gap, Stoops said. “Few North Carolinians realize that the state has extensive educational options for preschoolers and college students but little for children in the ‘middle’ — the 1.5 million students in district-run public schools,” he said. “Well over $1 billion in state and federal funding goes to private preschools, child-care facilities, and institutions of higher education every year.”

Children in K-12 schools have fewer options in North Carolina, Stoops said. “Regrettably, children in the ‘middle’ enjoy considerably fewer educational options than their preschool and college counterparts.”

About 50,000 children attend public charter schools in North Carolina, and that number is bound to grow now that the state has abandoned its longstanding cap of 100 charters statewide, Stoops said.

Lawmakers opened another door last year for parents of special-needs students. New tax credits will help those parents pursue educational options outside traditional district-run schools.

Stoops devotes the bulk of his book chapter to spelling out details linked to other choice options. In addition to charter schools, he focuses on tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and individual tax credits and deductions.

“Tax-credit scholarships allow individuals or corporations — or both, depending on the program — to redirect a portion of their state tax payments to a nonprofit organization that provides private-school scholarships,” Stoops said.

These scholarships can take many forms, Stoops explained. Eight states already operate 10 existing tax-credit scholarship programs.

“As North Carolina lawmakers look into tax-credit scholarships, they will face a number of questions,” he said, “Should credits be means-tested, universal, or have mixed eligibility? Should the credit apply to individual or corporate income taxes? To sales or property taxes? Should donors get dollar-for-dollar credits? First In Freedom offers helpful background information about how other states have addressed these key issues.”

Stoops also devotes attention to ESAs. “An education savings account is a tax-free vehicle in which parents can save money to spend on approved education expenses, such as tuition, textbooks, and tutoring, and into which governments can also deposit tax dollars for these uses.”

State lawmakers removed a major roadblock for school choice when they lifted an arbitrary cap on public charter schools, but those charter schools still could benefit from additional changes, Stoops said.

“These independent, tuition-free public schools of choice are more popular than ever, but the State Board of Education continues to approve heavy-handed rules and regulations that multiply the challenges that new and existing charter schools face,” he said. “Excessive regulation stifles experimentation, innovation, and customization.”

First In Freedom devotes particular attention to rules governing charter school finances, governance, transportation and food service requirements, and facilities.

In addition to the “nuts and bolts” of particular school choice options, Stoops spells out basic elements that any school choice plan ought to address. He also highlights studies that show how school choice conforms to the North Carolina Constitution, along with studies that use “rigorous research and empirical evidence” to judge the effectiveness of North Carolina’s choice programs.

“These studies suggest that properly designed and implemented school choice programs will improve academic and social outcomes for participating students,” Stoops said.

Copies of First in Freedom: Transforming Ideas Into Consequences for North Carolina are available at the John Locke Foundation’s online store.

For more information, please contact Dr. Terry Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].